Few places stir emotions quite like Kashmir. Bestowed with astounding geographical beauty and a most hospitable people, Kashmir has a special, indescribable charm. Its conflicted history is in sharp relief to its many great attributes, adding to a poignancy to the region. A confluence of traditions, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh merged to create a unique history, one that forged not just a distinct language and culture but also a wonderful tea drinking tradition in the form of Kehwa, a type of green tea. Although drunk across Afghanistan and parts of northern Pakistan, Kehwa is very much associated with Kashmir. 

Evocatively described to me as “a liquid identity of Kashmir” by Gulaam Gouse Deewani, a 30 year old luxury travel consultant from Srinagar, Kehwa is indeed synonymous with the Valley and its people. For Kashmiris living outside the state, drinking Kehwa at home keeps alive a daily connection to a place one yearns for but often can’t visit. I should know. My mother, Kokila is a Kashmiri living in Delhi who drinks multiple cups daily, as do most of my extended family. I used to drink Kehwa only when I visited my parents and other relatives, and enjoy it so much that I recently started brewing and drinking it at home in Mumbai. It helps that a host of ready mix Kehwa blends are now available across India, making the preparation easier, but more on that later. 

What is Kehwa?

Depending on whether its drunk daily or brewed for ceremonial purposes, Kehwa involves a number of ingredients. For daily use, most people boil dried, unprocessed, green tea leaves, crush a bit of small cardamom, toss in a few cinnamon sticks, and for some real panache, assorted strands of saffron. Boil the brew, add in sugar and crush or sliver some almonds as required and voila! the Kehwa is ready to sip. 

Ceremonial Kehwa was typically served in a samovar which consists of a copper or silver container placed upon a fire so that the tea leaves continuously boil. The samovar contained a tube running from the fire to the top of the vessel, for the heat to pass. In the past, charcoal was used as fuel for the pot so that it could be stoked from the sides. 

Small cups, made of copper or silver or some type of metal, called ‘khosa’ were used to serve Kehwa. My uncle, H.L. Zutshi, has vivid memories of watching women drinking Kehwa as a child in Srinagar. “They would be wearing Pherans (a long tunic with very long sleeves) and hold the khosa by their sleeves doubled up since the cup would be so hot,” he recalls. “These ladies were very adept at doing so because drinking boiling hot Kehwa was an art, otherwise it could scald your lips and mouth. Life has come a long way since then. We use stainless steel vessels to boil the tea leaves and serve the Kehwa in China.” Indeed, gone are the days of elaborate tea drinking rituals. 

I rang my mother to discuss Kehwa. She described childhood trips to Kheer Bhawani, a temple in the village of Tul Mul, outside Srinagar, where, under a big banyan tree, everyone drank Kehwa and ate fried bread. She said that Kashmiris drink Kehwa from an early age, pointing out that it functions as a sort of “cure all,” aiding in digestion, administered in sickness, fortifying in cold weather, energizing, stress relieving – in short, Kehwa is a wonder drug! As a testimony to Kehwas persuasive powers, she noted (not without some pride) that even my Tamilian father was a convert. “He drinks it more than I do!” 

Most Kashmiris drink Kehwa multiple times a day. In my mother’s case, she has it once at about 11am and later, at about 6pm. An uncle wakes up at 3 am to drink it. At that time in the morning, his recipe is straight forward: a few Kehwa leaves, ground cinnamon, and cardamom, but no sugar and almonds. 

Happily, Kehwa’s popularity has moved beyond the Kashmiri community. It has now become fashionable to serve the tea at every elaborate Punjabi / North Indian wedding. Local Kashmiris waiters pour it from elaborate samovars, adding an exotic flair to the festivities. 

As for myself, I used to have my mother bring the dried green tea leaves whenever she came to visit me in Mumbai but I now see ready Kehwa mixes available in a variety of retail stores, as well as in specialty tea shops. These mixes contain the cardamom, cinnamon, and sometimes saffron and dried rose that give Kehwa its distinct, aromatic qualities. If you close your eyes, you can waft yourself a few thousand miles across the plains to the sounds of cascading brooks and rocky streams of water, to a place that, despite its ravages, retains a dignified elegance, where the hope for peace endures. 

Illustration by Tasneem Amiruddin

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5 Comments

  1. A very readable piece and very well written . Enjoyed every moment of the read . Thank you for posting an article like this

  2. Jayashree Rammohan Reply

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece on the Kashmiri Kehwa. I first tasted kehwa at a Kashmiri friend’s home and loved it… the subtle flavour of the tea, the cardamom and cinnamon (both are favourite herbs) and the crunch of the almonds with every other sip.. and finally using a spoon to scoop up the residual almond cardamom cinnamon mix..Heaven!!
    I then moved on to other teas, fruity blends, herbal infusions… your piece has made me hanker for some kehwa! That will be my next order on Teabox…

  3. Traci Levy Reply

    I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Kehwa! The memories you shared from your family added some very special touches to the article. Thanks!

  4. excellent blog, i never knew so much about kashmiri kahwa tea and its benefits. thank you for the information.

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